ZF Engineering in Pilsen Expertise from Eastern Europe

In 2015, ZF expanded the company’s R&D center in Pilsen, further strengthening this key location in Eastern Europe. Here, a team of 270 engineers runs development projects for the Group, is testing hardware and software and is using ZF’s first 3-D metal printer to build prototypes.

“Dobrý den! Good morning!” Site manager Dr. Mathias Eickhoff welcomes his Czech colleagues to the Tuesday morning management meeting. Although he has built up a solid basic vocabulary after 18 months of learning the language, the meeting will be held in English. “When you’re discussing technical material, it’s easier and faster for everybody involved to use the main company language,” explains the 51-year-old engineer with a laugh. Heads of department make their reports; Mathias Eickhoff digs deeper, then makes decisions. “We’ve got a highly motivated team of young engineers here,” says Eickhoff. “Although some people still associate ZF with gears and gearboxes, here we focus on software development. That’s why so many university graduates, not to mention experienced professionals, join us from Pilsen and Prague.”

Video: Research and development at Pilsen

R&D center Pilsen

ZF acquired the Pilsen development center from an engineering services provider in 2007, along with some 50 employees. The new main building was added in 2015. Today, ZF employs around 300 people in Pilsen. In 2015, Mathias Eickhoff’s team generated sales of around 12.5 million euros.

Development projects for more than 270 engineers

ZF Engineering in Pilsen enjoys a strategically advantageous location on the university road, right next to various research institutes. Pilsen and the Czech Republic have many advantages, explains Mathias Eickhoff. They are near the German border, in a central European location, with good communication skills – because many young Czechs also speak German or English – as well as technical universities delivering a high standard of education. “This makes it a very attractive place to be, and is a good reason for the company’s growing involvement,” explains the site manager. “At the moment, we can’t recruit all the employees we need. We’re currently advertising 25 engineering posts; more than half of them are really urgent.”

Software skills in the ZF community

Team leader Pavel Srnka (32) and test coordinator Václav Podlena (31) are examining a test record on-screen. They are checking the safety functions in a commercial vehicle transmission. So where is the actual transmission? “We don’t need it,” they smile. “We’re working with a simulation, so we’re checking the software for errors.” And if they find any? “We feed them back to our colleagues in development and they send us back a new version a little later, hopefully error-free.” Tests like this may run for anything from a couple of hours to a couple of weeks.

More than two thirds of the engineers at ZF Pilsen work in software development and testing. Because all modern technologies are now managed by software, the development center does a huge amount of legwork for other ZF locations such as Friedrichshafen. “It’s all done by MRP and budgeting,” explains Mathias Eickhoff. “People look around the Group to see who has the capacity and appropriate expertise and can do the development work for a reasonable price.”

Prototype parts from powder metal printers

Compared with the software teams on the first floor, the workshops in the old building come across as quite old-fashioned. But these modest premises conceal advanced engineering, in the form of a 3-D metal printer – the first and only such device in ZF. The printer uses lasers to “print” metal shapes by melting layer after layer of aluminum or steel powder to build up a three-dimensional workpiece in a process called direct metal laser sintering.

The advantages are obvious. “We’re faster and cheaper than if we had to ramp up a conventional production,” explains print coordinator Karel Löffelmann. And the prototype workpieces allow designers to be much more flexible. “It’s enormously helpful in advanced engineering,” says Mathias Eickhoff, himself a mechanical engineer. “And that’s a huge step forward compared with plastic prototypes. While they can reproduce the shape, they can’t be used in the same way as metal components.”

ZF represents at eight locations and employs araound 3,200 people in the Czech Republic. In 2015, Czech sales totaly nearly 100 milllion euros - without TRW included. The country acts as a bridgehead for ZF's expanding activities in Eastern Europe.

Working with a young team

The main building at ZF Pilsen, an elegant glass affair, houses also the designers and simulation specialists. Such as the team of designers configuring new dual-mass flywheels on computer, for example. “We do a lot of development work. I find it more exciting than production,” enthuses mechanical engineer Miroslav Čižek (36), who has been working at ZF Pilsen for six years.

Worldwide, ZF engineers and technicians work in research and development at 18 different locations

In the open-plan office below, eight teams comprising more than 100 software development engineers sit together. They are tweaking the system management software for transmissions like the 9HP, TraXon and Ergopower, or the latest electronically controlled shock absorbers fitted with Continuous Damping Control (CDC). Head of department Martin Valenta is proud of his “young brains’ potential”: “Over the last few years, we’ve built up enormous expertise among our new recruits. We’re proud to be a part of the larger ZF team.”

pictures: ZF, Dominik Gigler

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